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Shooting My Way Into the Scene

May 31, 2010
The Bow Under Construction, Calgary

The Bow Under Construction, Calgary // First glance

Recently over at Bret Edge Photography, Bret posted the topic Explore Your Options. In it, he described his approach for avoiding tunnel vision when preparing to shoot a location. Excerpt:

I find that leaving the camera off the tripod for a spell is very freeing.  I can wander around unencumbered.  Locking my camera on to the tripod feels sort of permanent.  Once I find the composition that best fits my vision for the scene I’ll bust out the tripod […]

While I’ll sometimes follow the same sort of approach, in my reply on the topic I noted a different process that works for me. More often than not, I seem to set up my tripod (if I have one along) and begin photographing the scene relatively quickly. Of course, this presumes something about the situation appeals to me. Even if the appeal is a faint one, I often don’t just try to frame different aspects of the scene by eye to isolate the appeal; I’ll go ahead and shoot. But I’m pretty mobile about it, and work to avoid getting locked in on something that is too shallow or obvious due to not exploring deeper.

Since posting my reply on Bret’s site I’ve thought a bit more about this. Rather than just admit that I’m a “shoot first and ask questions later” kind of guy :), I have come up with an analogy — the idea of studies as practiced in the world of painting, drawing, sculpture and other visual arts.

I have great respect for photographers who can make the creative leap from visualizing in the eye & mind to capturing in the camera, going from looking at the scene through the viewfinder to taking that small number of photographs (possibly even just one!) that ideally captures their interpretation of the scene. But I often find that in order to get my creativity really engaged, I need to actively photograph rather than simply view or frame a setting. I often think of this as “shooting my way into the scene”. This is particularly advantageous for locations where I can spend a good chunk of time, or visit on multiple occasions.

X Marks the Shot, Calgary

X Marks the Shot, Calgary // Finished composition

Just as a painter, sculptor or other artist may initially prepare one or more sketches or studies before embarking on the final version of a composition at its full scale, shooting my way into the scene allows me to capture numerous aspects of the location. I can compare them against each other more thoroughly than in realtime by eye alone. If I make multiple visits, then in the intervening time I can evaluate details, textures, light, the interplay of subject elements, framing options and many other considerations on the path to determining a finished composition. If circumstances don’t work out to quickly get the finished version I’m after, I can maintain a visual record of the elements that appealed and hopefully revisit the scene at a later date when the situation is more favorable.

One of the tools that’s useful for shooting my way into the scene is a pocket-sized camera. I own and use the Panasonic LX3 and Canon G10, and one or the other of them is with me most of the time. Even if I’m not out deliberately planning to photograph, if I see something that sparks my interest, I can react right away and make a number of captures. Given luck, preparedness and my own creativity, a finished composition might result then & there. But if not, I can use the images as studies to reflect on and shape up another approach.

Of course, what I describe here isn’t a battle of techniques vs. the concept Bret laid out. It isn’t a matter of good or bad, one or the other. It’s all about finding ways to approach a scene, focus in on something compelling about it, and then realize that attraction in a final image. Any approach that works is a good approach!

If you’re a photographer, what’s your game plan? Do you ever use the concept of multiple takes and studies to work your way towards a finished composition?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2010 19:02

    Hey Royce,

    The “X marks the spot” is a neat shot!!! Great positioning!!!!

  2. June 2, 2010 07:03

    Thanks Dave! Photographing cityscapes can be a bit like tackling a forest — overwhelming scale and density of details. I find one thing that’s fun in that kind of situation is to dial in on some details…

  3. June 3, 2010 12:42

    Hi Royce. I’d agree that your post isn’t about which style works best. I read Bret’s post and now yours. Both work. I find myself using either approach depending on how quickly I identify what is in front of me that I want to shoot, how to compose it and then how to capture it. Sometimes one just has to scout around to identify the elements that work. Although I’m often presented with slippery boulders and rushing waters which make a walk about a bit difficult. But “shooting my way into the scene” most often is my approach as well. The cameras now allow us to inspect and refine our images and that works a lot better than the film days. I still haven’t been able to shoot falling/rushing water with a certainty as to how the veiling will work, so shoot and adjust works.
    I have no affinity for shooting cityscapes, but you certainly found yourself a great image amongst the “forest” that is most enjoyable. The shading of the glass is pretty neat, even down to the lowest triangle being divided as well.
    Steve Gingold

  4. June 10, 2010 16:43

    Great post, and great way of describing your technique, Royce. I think for me its largely the same. In the days, weeks, months leading up to a trip, I begin looking at maps, aerial photos, and reading accounts of an area in an effort to visualize scenes in my mind’s eye. However, very often, either because of the conditions or just my preference those scenes aren’t my favorite ones from a shoot.

    Because of my short attention span (as my wife puts it), I get distracted easily, and usually end up shooting more intimate landscapes, even though the grander one is right before me. Those are things I can’t visualize ahead of time, so I guess in a way I am also shooting my way into the scene.

    Great way of looking at it!

  5. June 11, 2010 20:41

    Thanks for your notes, guys!

    Steve, good note on “shoot & adjust” for situations that involve dynamic elements. Obviously situations that aren’t that repeatable (sports, wildlife, etc.) are a different concern. But waterfalls, seascapes, cloudscapes and the like often do require a good deal of experimentation and multiple compositions for me as well. The more dynamic the scene, I think the more handy it can be to remain very fluid in compositional approach.

    Greg, I have what I like to think of as a good attention span over the long haul, but an ability to be interested in a lot of different things in the short term. I guess one could call it being easily distracted. 🙂 I’m trying to actively cultivate the ability to be interested in lots of different approaches to subject matter… shooting trials and studies of things I’m not used to is a good way to try to keep my eye out of a creative rut. I recall someone saying something along the lines of “if you’re not throwing out much, you’re not trying much.” A bit harsh, perhaps, but there’s a nugget of truth in it…

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